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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety, the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors, and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was well dressed and soft spoken – sincere, and human. We exchanged business cards and wished each other luck in changing the healthcare system for the better. We were two doctors tilting at windmills.

Just two months ago my fiancé sent me a “must read” article from the Wall Street Journal. It was Marty’s provocative piece, “How To Stop Hospitals From Killing Us.” The article was an excellent primer for his book, “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You And How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care” which I highly recommend (holiday gifts, anyone?)

Unaccountable is both horrifying and oddly optimistic. Marty describes case after case of medical errors, lapses in judgment, and near misses in the surgical suite. He exposes the cultural foibles of the medical and hospital hierarchy, leaving no dirty stone unturned. Surgical delinquents such as Dr. Hodad (“hands-of-death-and-destruction”) are presented with detached accuracy, along with a clear list of reasons why the system fails to prevent the Hodads of the world from operating.

From the micro (individual physician mistakes) to the macro (trends in hospital safety breakdowns), Marty turns to survey data to make sense of the shortcomings. Interestingly, hospital “culture” (rated by its own employees) is the most predictive of overall hospital safety performance. Detailed record keeping of surgical complication rates correlates strongly with how employees rate their hospital on three simple questions:

1. Would you have your operation at the hospital in which you work?

2. Do you feel comfortable speaking up when you have a safety concern?

3. Does the teamwork here promote doing what’s right for the patient?

Marty’s conclusion that culture is the defining factor in patient safety and satisfaction ratings is both accurate and squishy. It’s difficult to create a reproducible template for a healthy work culture, and yet good culture is the basis for the success of hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic. Individual hospitals, like individual surgeons, have different personalities and temperaments. Raising them to be upstanding citizens involves a combination of good parenting and good luck.

Because I think Marty is absolutely right about culture as the foundation for safe and effective care, I think he’s also overly optimistic about the potential success of strategies to reproduce caring hospital cultures. By his own admission, not even the Mayo Clinic “mother ship” in Rochester, MN, has been able to create the exact level of quality care in its sister hospitals in Scottsdale, AZ, and Jacksonville, FL. So how can we dramatically improve patient care on a national level? Marty suggests that we need to find ways to force hospitals to become more transparent in order to revolutionize healthcare. His ideas include:

1. Mandatory hospital public reporting of patient re-admissions, complication rates, and never events.

2. Adoption of check lists by surgical teams to reduce errors.

3. Installation of video cameras throughout hospital floors and surgical suites so that staff behaviors can be monitored more effectively (e.g. to enforce hand washing or identify surgeons who have high error rates).

4. Accessible and transferable medical records that put patients at the center of their documentation.

While these ideas have merit, I believe they will fall short of achieving our ultimate goals. In my view, a culture of accountability is not the same as a culture of caring. Adopting certain “Big Brother” (cf. #3 above) strategies to pressure staff to behave/perform appropriately is only going to force the Hodads underground. We need staff to genuinely care enough about their patients to gang up on the Hodads and kick them out of the hospital for good. Caring doesn’t happen at a national level, it is personal and local. That’s why individual hospitals must develop their unique cultures for themselves, with progress measured by responses to those staff questions about whether or not they’d want to be cared for at their own institution.

I agree with Marty that hospital data transparency might be the best antiseptic we have to scrub the underbelly of medicine, though the ultimate success of our procedures will always be culture and surgeon-dependent. And that’s something you can’t regulate from Washington.


Marty’s book is available for purchase at

Check out your local hospital safety scores from LeapFrogGroup.

Casting Light On The Actual Costs Of Medical Care

I really like this idea, but …  well, see after the quote.

It’s easy to compare prices on cameras, vacations, and homes. But in the United States, patients fly blind when paying for health care. People typically don’t find out how much any given medical procedure costs until well after they receive treatment, be it a blood draw or major surgery.

This lack of transparency has contributed to huge disparities in the cost of procedures. According to Castlight Health, a startup based in San Francisco, a colonoscopy costs anywhere from $563 to $3,967 within a single zip code. EKGs can range from $27 to $143, while the price for a set of three spinal x-rays varies from as little as $38 to as high as $162.

When someone else is picking up the tab, mystery pricing is not much of a problem. But these days, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at GruntDoc*

Expert Shows Concern: Is It Possible To Choose The Best Health Care For You?

This interview is the ninth and final of a series of brief chats between CFAH president and founder, Jessie Gruman, and experts—our CFAH William Ziff Fellows—who have devoted their careers to understanding and encouraging people’s engagement in their health and health care.

Trudy Lieberman is concerned that despite all the rhetoric, choosing the best hospital, the best doctor, the best health plan, is simply not possible.  Some of the so-called best might be good for some people but not others, and the information available to inform/guide choices is just too ambiguous.

Ms. Lieberman is a CFAH William Ziff Fellow.


Gruman: What has changed in the past year that has influenced people’s engagement in their health and health care?

Lieberman: Costs have risen a lot, and employers and insurers have made consumers pay higher deductibles, co-pays and coinsurance.  The theory is, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

Physician Organizes A Price List Of 56 Common Medical Tests

I am smacking myself on the forehead and saying, “Why didn’t I think of this?”  Dr. Richard Parker, Medical Director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center,  has sent out a list to his physician colleagues of 56 common medical tests and procedures.  What is revolutionary is that there are prices next to each item.  You non-physicians may be surprised to know that we doctors have no idea what the tests or drugs we order actually cost.  Unless we get billed as a patient, we are as clueless as you are.

As I wrote before, the ostrich excuse just won’t fly any more.  We all need to be aware of the cost of care and have skin in the game.  Some will argue that price can’t be the only driver.  I’ve heard physicians say you can’t compare one price to another because “quality” costs more.  I say prove it. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Will We Ever See Accountability And Transparency In Our Healthcare System?

President Obama, where is your promise about transparency and accountability in Obamacare?

A major problem in the healthcare system is the lack of transparency and accountability. It has been unchecked for a very long time.

Both primary and secondary stakeholders act in their self-interest. These stakeholders have had ample opportunity to be non-transparent and non-accountable. All the stakeholders have abused the healthcare system.

I hit a nerve with my last blog “Patients And Physicians Must Control Costs”. Multiple readers responded with the usual comments:

Patients are not smart enough to handle their own healthcare dollars.”

“Your basic idea makes sense, but in reality I doubt that a patient knows enough to make intelligent medical/financial decisions, because there are too many unknowns and variables.”

“Physicians over use the fee for service system in order to make more money.”

“If a physician tells a patient that there is only a 1/10,000 chance that an MRI will yield something useful, if the patient doesn’t have to pay for it, the patient wants the MRI.

Patients (consumers) must be taught and motivated to manage their own healthcare dollars. Patients’ choice Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Repairing the Healthcare System*

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